On the day that he sent off his forthcoming album, Jentrify, to be mixed and mastered, Elujay sat in a dimly lit Berkeley studio with his engineer and a gaggle of other friends and collaborators. Multi-instrumentalist Wax Roof, who had a major hand in producing the album, and photographer Andre Maliik chatted passionately about strategies for artists to build longevity amid a climate of changing trends and short attention spans.
"Just get ready for this new wave of Oakland music," Elujay said excitedly. The twenty-year-old artist has the charismatic air of a natural leader. He assembled the group there that day to talk about his new creative collective, OneTime, which he's in the process of getting off the ground. "Are you coming to the meeting on Saturday?" he asked the group.
"Just tell me if there's food there, and I'll be there," Maliik replied enthusiastically. The rest of the gang nodded, laughing.
Taking initiative is something Elujay has always been good at: He began making beats on FruityLoops in middle school; competing in poetry slams during high school at Oakland Tech; and opening for big-name artists like Ty Dolla $ign with his former rap group IMPRL by his senior year in 2014. Now, he's reintroducing himself to the world as a solo performer with another bold move: Jentrify. The album, which he considers his official debut and is due out in July, is a soulful meditation on Oakland's issues with displacement, police brutality, and other forms of systemic inequality.
Though Elujay expressed some trepidation about being put in a box as a conscious rapper, he said that he felt it was urgent for him to speak up about issues directly affecting him and his community. "I wanted to come up with a soundtrack to Oakland before all this gentrification shit started happening," he said. "Something that brings the people together; something that's universal but hits home really hard."
Throughout the album, the rapper communicates these sober themes through a bright, jazzy sonic palette, with his metaphorical raps couched in warm layers of melodic instrumentation and gospel-influenced backing vocals with an improvisatory air.
The album is a testament to Elujay's skills as a creative director and arranger. He co-produced all of the tracks and brought in nearly thirty musicians, singers, and producers to create a rich musical patchwork that also includes R&B and house elements — reminiscent of the collaborative feel of Kanye West's The Life of Pablo. However, with only a couple features from other rappers throughout the project, Elujay's voice and empowering messages assume the foreground.
Jentrify brims with feel-good vibes that posit it as a heartening antidote to the stark realities of today's sociopolitical climate, transforming struggle into a bright picture of resilience. "I didn't just want to make political rap, I wanted to give people something that soothes them and gets them going in the morning," he said.
Just take "Soul Food," the first single off Jentrify featuring rising Chicago MC Saba — a track that has been lauded on prominent, national music blogs such as Pigeons & Planes. Hands up, don't shoot/I know you want to/Rolling up that Keyshia Cole/I got that soul food, a chorus of female singers croons. This refrain juxtaposes a protest cry against police violence with colorful allusions to favorite comforts: weed, warm meals, soulful music. Throughout the lyrics, Elujay elaborates on the theme that celebrating life can be a form of protest in the face of oppression.
Throughout "Soul Food," Elujay's laidback flow, which he often imbues with a raspy, singing quality, glides over a smooth guitar riff, conjuring images of lazy Sunday afternoons with the smell of home cooking wafting in from the kitchen. But, in contrast to its cheerful sonic palette, the track was born of a traumatic situation Elujay endured last year.
After the Warriors won the 2015 NBA championship, many Oaklanders took to the streets to celebrate the victory. Elujay recalled walking through the fray when, out of nowhere, two police officers in riot gear tackled him while shouting racial slurs. While the police let him go shortly after the confrontation, he said that a friend of his, who was also harassed the same night, ended up being held at Santa Rita Jail for a week on false charges.
"That was when I understood the reality of police brutality, and being a targeted individual based on your skin tone," he said. "You see all this shit in the news, like Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice. When it actually happens to you, it gives you more of a political understanding." While processing the difficult ordeal, Elujay channeled his frustration into "Soul Food" and, from there, developed the concept for Jentrify.
The artist said Jentrify contains references to different times in his life that he expects will resonate with other Oakland natives who grew up around the same scenery — the hang-out spots around Lake Merritt; the blighted blocks of an increasingly gentrified West Oakland. "It's like the good and the bad of Oakland — 'cause it's beautiful."
He continued, lamenting that many of his family members and childhood friends have been priced out of Oakland, and that he's seen longstanding pieces of local culture — like the ninety-year-old Temescal sandwich spot Genova Delicatessen — pushed out due to rising rents. "I have a problem with the culture being lost. That's very important to the city, and that's what's been happening. ... That shit deeply affects me."
He said he hopes that Jentrify will galvanize young people to take action, whether in the form of participating in community service projects or lobbying the city government for better rent control.
"This project right here — there's no better time for it to come out than now."